As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Martin writes about Jonathan Richman's undying love for the Velvet Underground, him being a twee pioneer, and why plenty of people have called Pablo Picasso an asshole since the release of this 1976 single.
Read or isten to the piece below,
Given his penchant for misogyny and womanizing, there have been plenty of people who have thought of Pablo Picasso as an asshole. But I’m not going to go into an art history lesson here. Let’s stick to music, strictly for the purposes of timeliness.
Let’s talk about Jonathan Richman. The patron saint of indie-pop. He was such a profoundly obsessive student of the Velvet Underground, he was easily one of the highlights of Todd Haynes’s 2021 documentary on the band.
Richman’s origin story is deeply tied to his love of iconoclast Lou Reed and his merry band of art-rockers. Richman moved to New York from the Boston area in 1969 to chase his dream of being a rock ‘n roll musician. He slept on the couch of Velvet Underground manager Steve Sesnick before finding shelter in crummy Greenwich Village hotels. When his aspirations of securing a recording contract were dashed, Richman returned to Western Massachusetts and formed the Modern Lovers.
The story of the Modern Lovers is short but full of twists and turns. In the four years of the group’s initial run, there were many personnel changes and abandoned recordings. There were rapturously received live shows and irreconcilable personality clashes. By the time the tracks that would make the band’s self-titled debut were released, the band had broken up. Richman reportedly was looking for a mellower sound than the weird, rambling rock ‘n roll he and his band created. Even though the songs had been unreleased, Richman was unwilling to play “old” songs like “Roadrunner,” causing the Modern Lovers to break up in 1974.
By 1976, the release of the band’s debut full-length would propel Richman and his former bandmates to cult stardom. Some of those former bandmates had already moved on to heralded bands of their own. Jerry Harrison joined the Talking Heads as a keyboardist and guitarist. David Robinson co-founded a band you may have heard of named the Cars. The Modern Lovers’ self-titled debut would — eventually — be hailed as a rock ‘n roll masterpiece, one that would sit alongside the Velvet Underground’s first two albums as setting the tone for punk music.
VU’s co-founder, composer, and virtuoso John Cale produced six of the album’s nine tracks, including “Pablo Picasso.” Not to bury the lede, but the song is a satirical examination of the painter’s sexism and the fact that he was married twice and always kept several mistresses on the side. The musical backdrop of the song very much slots into the Velvet Underground’s style of song composition. Instrumentation nearly to the point of meandering, scribbling guitar work, no chorus.
Picasso is recast here as a New York art scene hipster, cruising around the Upper West Side in a Cadillac Eldorado. Women all over the city become flush and not being able to resist his gaze. Standing at five foot three, this depiction of Picasso would suggest these days we would call him a “short king.” There’s a sense of jealousy detected in the voice of Richman when he sings about this character who the ladies can’t resist. You can almost hear the dryness of Richman’s sarcasm each time he implies Picasso was never called an asshole. Almost.
In his future recordings, Richman would master the mellow sound he was interested in around the time these punchy rock ‘n roll songs would capture the imagination of obscure music fans. The naiveté of his later recordings would cement his status as the godfather of twee and all its childlike whimsy. But his legacy as frontman of the Modern Lovers lives on in a generation of weird rock ‘n roll kids all over the world.
With all of the transgressive subject matter of his heroes in the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman set himself apart by saving his ire for a fictionalized version of one of art’s most infamous personalities. The Modern Lovers did not make music for assholes, and Richman was all the more beloved for it.
As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week as we celebrate 1995, Martin Douglas writes about…
KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Jasmine Albertson looks back at …
Each week, we’re picking a year from the last half-century to remember that moment in music. This week, we’re celebrating the year 2019. KEXP’s Dusty Henry reflects on how Helado Negro’s “Two Lucky” guided him through grief and new beginnings.